When I was sixteen, I made the choice to leave my school, my friends, my home and family, to live and study across the ocean at a boarding school. Though I loved my experience abroad, many times throughout I wondered whether I was doing the right thing, whether I would have enjoyed myself better if I’d stayed home. Was it foolish to trade a close-knit community for a shot at living overseas?
Ultimately, it is hard to answer such a question—how can we find peace with the choices we make in life? Luckily, we are not the first to ask these questions, nor will we be the last. Our wonderings are in good company among artists, writers, and thinkers who try to understand and translate human experience. This shared exercise is what we call philosophy: the exploration and analysis of matters pertaining to knowledge, reality, and existence. If the discipline seems all-encompassing, it’s because it has been.
One such philosopher is the professor of last semester’s Philosophy and Politics of Humor course, Sinem Kilic. Sinem is a faculty member at Bard College Berlin and PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She brings great depth to discussions through her extensive knowledge of philosophical texts and concepts, and makes complex ideas approachable through her friendliness and horizontal class dynamics. Many of the courses she teaches at BCB (like the Philosophy of Humor one, which I took) have a focus on the philosophy of things quite familiar to us in daily life.
Studying with Sinem provided me with some interesting insight into how something as innocuous as humor can be an object of philosophical study, and showed me how enriching to daily life such a study can be. Between the political implications of humor and the fact that theories about it vary as much as real-life approaches to humor do, it quickly became clear that our class was relevant far beyond the classroom. She also told me about another class she taught at BCB on friendship, and how she felt that looking at friendship from a philosophical angle was also especially helpful in navigating everyday and interpersonal relationships. I realized then that she might offer some insight on the closeness to philosophy I had also begun to feel. We sat down in our seminar room one day after the rest of the students had filed out to discuss the use of the study of philosophy in our daily lives.
Sinem told me she initially set out to study Medicine in Mainz, but then gave up for a Philosophy, Musicology, and Classics degree because it involved much more reading and writing, which she dearly missed. Sinem said that while medicine is a great profession, she missed a certain kind of thinking only the Humanities provide—a sentiment which might resonate with BCB students. Like Sinem, I transferred to BCB for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Thought program and for the university’s focus on seminar-style, close-reading classes. The program style of my previous university system was not stimulating me as I wished it would be, and BCB offered an education infused with philosophy.
Politics and Philosophy of Humor with Sinem is only the latest of the many courses I have taken which have deepened my knowledge of the way we move through the world. The Renaissance Art core course taught me a great deal about humanist perspectives and how they still shape our relationship to the world today. A class on Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians gave me much to think about in terms of statesmanship, and what kind of leader countries should look for in a time when voting has become critical. Things like these, come up as we are simply going about our days: swiping on dating apps can be quite the experience, but we can all keep ourselves out of some trouble with the examples and thoughts (good and bad both) from the varied thought on love and relationships from BCB’s Forms of Love course.
The most poignant case of this pervasiveness, and the one that makes the need for philosophy as a guide in personal life most evident to me, comes from the interest I have developed in Kierkegaard’s thought. “I’m always so glad you’ve found him,” Sinem laughs, as my appreciation for his theory is now a running joke in our course since. She introduced him through his proposition that humor always arises from a contradiction that is painless, whereas tragedy comes from one that is painful, a contradiction which no one sees a way out of (from his Concluding Unscientific Postscript). His Either/Or: A Fragment Of Life philosophy has provided me with a clarity and tranquility I have never felt before (despite being the most anxious of the philosophers we read this semester). In a famous fragment, Kierkegaard writes: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” Bleak though it may sound, considering this way of thinking in your own life can be also quite soothing. All of us face moments of our lives forking in different directions, where we are given a choice, and thus a chance to regret. If we recognize Kierkegaard’s claim that human life is made of this regret, we may choose to enjoy what it is that we have decided. At first, I took this insight retroactively, feeling more at ease about the choices I have made in the past. Now, however, it also talks down my anxiety in decision-making moments that affect my present and future. The lightness it has given me is indescribable. (And if Kierkegaard isn’t for you, great news: there are many others out there.)
Philosophy can seem inaccessible, a discipline locked away (partly by itself, through the elitism of academia) in an ivory tower, but in fact it breathes with life all around us. Behind every text, be it literary or economic, there lies a logic of thought, a way of thinking, just as in our own lives and actions. Take the example of an idiom such as “money can’t buy happiness.” Though in theory correct, this saying’s ignorance of the material reality that living comfortably is an important component to happiness could be traced to a hierarchy where the physical (a life in poverty) is less important than the spiritual/ideal, as Christian theology or platonic idealism might have it. A mindset that focuses on pleasure and having fun can be traced back to hedonistic thought or even nihilism, just as overt concern can be linked to influential pessimistic philosophers. References of philosophy and philosophical history can, thus, help us understand how our views of the world are formed.
It also lives on all around us too, I realized, as Sinem told me of when she took her students to see the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh at the Pergamon Museum when the class was studying the poem. She told me how she wanted to show the class how every piece of what has come before us makes up our histories and colors our imaginations. Not only is the past waiting in books and museums complex and insightful, she told me, but it is living among us and in us, in our ability to ask the same questions as they did. These thoughts and thinkers amount to something much bigger than the classroom and dusty old books. And I mean this literally—our very relationship with the natural world is of a philosophical nature. We might try to understand the longing for a deeper connection with the natural world (especially those of us living in big cities) through the diverse traditions of thought on our relationship with nature, for instance indigenous ones or the Romantics of the nineteenth century (which I studied last semester under Prof. Dr. Sladja Blazan). To them, nature was a place of reverence as well as enmeshment, where we could see ourselves as one with nature instead of competing against it. In terms of aesthetics, too, the Romantics walked so cottagecore could run. We might not want to take up everything left behind by Romanticism, but their ability to reflect upon the natural world thus reflects in ours. An interest in exploring our relationship with nature will probably lead one to a bit of Rousseau, Mary Shelley, or Thoureau—I realized my curiosity brought me here, helping me better understand myself in an industrial society. You need only look close enough to realize all roads lead here, to a philosophical core. Beyond a field of study, it’s a component of the human psyche and attitude. The art of living is the art of making philosophy.
Besides being the world’s romantic beating heart, sap climbing up and down every tree fairy-tale style, I believe philosophy is also a tool. Don’t we have enough challenges on our own? Why distance our problems from the important thoughts of wise people of the past? Our lives might not seem significant or dignified enough to warrant the guidance of such an elevated discipline, but its subject is the quotidian, the bulk of our existence. Sinem gave me the example from Aristotle, who spoke of three kinds of friendship: one purely for pleasure, one occupational, one for intimate bonds. She said that she still thinks these categories of friendship apply in her own life, and they make adult life easier to navigate as bonds can come and go. She demonstrates how we are free to take philosophy for ourselves, renew its meaning to help us in the ways we need. It didn’t start with books we were given in classrooms, and it can never end there either. She said in our conversation, “You are never done with Philosophy. If someone tells you that, it’s just not true—they’re just being delusional or something, because it’s a lifelong process.” Philosophy’s infinity, its ability to reach into all parts of existence, means there are far more personal uses for it than I could ever describe, experience, or imagine.
Still, philosophy meets resistance in the world, falling out of fashion like it did at Socrates’ execution and other more horrific moments of human history (Nazi book burnings come to mind). In less serious instances, too (although arguably at times contributing to a spirit of dangerous close-mindfulness), students remain unmoved, unconvinced that the varied perspectives on the black and whiteboards around the world are of relevance, use, or interest to them. When I asked Sinem about nursing philosophical thought in unwieldy ground, she approached the problem by proving something about Philosophy’s pervasiveness. To a student who thought philosophy was superficial, she said, she would just ask them questions. “For example, what, according to you, makes a happy life? Or, what is justice? This is what I asked at the beginning of my Plato class. This is the question that is being raised in the Republic and there are so many different answers to it,” she explains. The Republic is a hard text to tackle, but since we all read it in our first semester, it stays in our mindscape to the point where it has become somewhat of a joke in BCB circles to realize how so many philosophical texts can relate back to it. This comes only as a vague surprise, as we all know the Republic tackles many topics—art, public life, political organizations, love—important not only in undergrad classrooms but also in most moments of our days. Sinem continues: “Then the student and I would engage in a discussion, and without them knowing, I guess they would start to philosophize with me.” Some have tried to escape philosophy in the name of things ranging from moral purity (such as in Socrates’ trial) to anti-elitism and a simpler lifestyle. Philosophy is, however, not only everywhere, but also its interest is in everything. Is it possible to think, hope, plan or expect without it? Can a human being refuse to examine reality and existence themselves?It may come through that I am personally philosophically overwhelmed. It is also true (at times, unfortunately) that I inherited from my University professor parents a tendency to intellectualize things, and this is partly why philosophy is so engaging to me. This one-sidedness I identify in myself was also partly why I enlisted Sinem to help me in the task of understanding Philosophy’s tangibility. When I asked her what draws her to Philosophy, she gave me perhaps one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Philosophy starts with wonder. And that’s my home turf.” Let he who is without wonder cast the first stone.